Tuesday, June 21, 2016

I've got news. BIG news.

Have you missed me? I’m sorry to have left you in the lurch but rest assured that I did have the best of reasons.

I’ve been exhausted and completely lacking in motivation to do any sort of creative cooking for the past few months. Luckily, it’s not because I’ve been experiencing an MS relapse (I feel healthy and strong from that point of view). It’s because I’m pregnant!

Some of you who know me in real life will know that this is something I’ve wanted for a long time – a very long time.
Life got in my way. We had difficulty conceiving. There were all the health worries associated with me having MS. In fact, there were so many hurdles that I was beginning to come to the heart-breaking conclusion that I would never be a mother.

But… then came March and a positive pregnancy test (actually three positive pregnancy tests as I couldn’t believe what the first, or second, was telling me!).

This is the third test - the one I finally believed!

My reactions surprised me. I was understandably shocked. I was overwhelmed with happiness. But I also felt unexpectedly fearful, fearful for the future and the physical, emotional and other challenges it would bring. It seemed that hoping for something for a long time had in no way prepared me for the reality of being pregnant.

Nor did it prepare me for the side-effects of early pregnancy. There were times when I felt entirely drained of physical and mental energy. Lifting my limbs or thinking a thought through to a logical conclusion (let alone crafting a sentence) proved to be beyond me. I didn’t suffer from morning sickness but I was repulsed by food. I had a disgusting metallic taste in my mouth no matter what I ate.  
(Surely when you take all of this into consideration, you’ll understand why I haven’t been able to cook or write anything about food for you here!)

I feel better now that I’m in my second trimester. The metallic taste is gone and repulsion has been replaced by ravenousness. However, the tiredness hasn’t gone away but recent blood tests may have revealed the reason for that: my iron levels are low.

This poses a particular problem for me. I have a condition that is common to Irish people called haemochromatosis. It causes my body to absorb excessive amounts of iron, which in turn puts pressure on my liver. In the past, I controlled this by not eating too many iron-rich foods; something that wasn’t too difficult because the OMS diet prevents me from eating red meat (or indeed any meat at all).

But now the baby obviously needs more iron than I have to give and because of my condition, I can’t take iron supplements.

So, I’ve started a new regime. I’ve decided to eat red meat once a week and two weeks ago, we had lamb. We cooked it on the barbeque so that most of the fat cooked out of the meat and on to the coals and it was delicious.  The following week, we had beef and that didn't go so well (but the less said about that, the better).

I’m eating sardines once a week. I had them with red onions, broccoli and whole-wheat pasta for lunch today and I’m still licking my lips.

I'm eating tofu once a week too. I don't want to eat it more often than that as I'm a little worried about soy products. 
(Those of you who are more informed than I am: am I right to be worried?)

I’m also eating more pulses.

I’m looking forward to experimenting with all of these ingredients and I’m sure I’ll post lots about it (and about the learning process of being pregnant) here.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from any of you who followed the OMS diet or any kind of health-giving exclusion diet while pregnant. How did you stick to the diet while making sure your baby got everything it needed to grow strong and healthy?

Monday, January 18, 2016

A recipe that will come to your rescue: pasta with broccoli, anchovies and garlic

I couldn't tell you how often I've made this for supper. I discovered it in Jamie Oliver's Happy Days with the Naked Chef about 15 years ago and have probably made it more than a hundred times since then. I've adapted the recipe a little to make it OMS friendly but it still tastes as lip-smackingly good as ever.

The flavour combination isn't the only reason this has become one of my go-to recipes. It's also easy and quick to make and I always have the ingredients to hand. 

I've even found that this recipe comes to the rescue if ever I'm hungover. There's something about the carbs in the pasta together with the saltiness of the anchovies and the head-clearing qualities of chilli that make it the ideal hangover buster!

So, here's how you whip up dinner for a hungry woman in the space of 15 minutes.

100g dried pasta (I use wholewheat farfalle)
One quarter of a head of broccoli, stem and all
1 large clove of garlic
4 anchovies
1 tablespoon of olive oil (if your anchovies come in oil, use some of that)
1/4 teaspoon of chilli
Salt and black pepper

  • Bring a pot of water to the boil. Add a generous amount of salt and when the water starts bubbling again, add the pasta. Wholewheat pasta usually takes about 15 minutes to cook, which allows you plenty of time to get everything else ready.
  • Chop the stem off your quarter head of broccoli. Cut off the dried-out end of the stem and any rough edges. Then chop the remainder into one-centimetre pieces. Don't worry too much about being precise. This isn't that sort of recipe.
  • Cut the head of broccoli into small florets and add any chunky stems to your pile of stem pieces. In this recipe nothing goes to waste.
  • You should end up with two piles that look something like this:

  • Chop your garlic as finely as you can.
  • Add the oil, anchovies, garlic, chilli and broccoli pieces to a small saucepan. Cover the saucepan and place over a low heat for seven minutes. I recommend shaking the saucepan about every minute or so to make sure that nothing is sticking to the bottom. If you feel that there is a danger of this happening or that your garlic might burn, add a tablespoon or two of water to the pan to keep the temperature down and make sure your concoction doesn't fry to a frazzle. 
  • Add the broccoli florets to the pan with the pasta in it five minutes or so before the pasta is due to be ready.
  • Then when everything is cooked, strain the water from the pasta and broccoli and toss them both into the pan with the broccoli pieces. Add some freshly-ground black pepper (be generous) and combine all of the ingredients thoroughly.
  • Pour everything into a bowl, making sure that you scrape out every last drizzle of the garlicky, anchovy-flavoured oil at the bottom of the pan. That's where all the real flavour is!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Good food and box sets - the only way to recover from the excesses of Christmas

Is it just me or are there others out there who think the festive season ought to be renamed exhaustion season? While it was lovely to catch up with family and friends over Christmas and New Year, the endless whirlwind of cooking, eating, drinking, socialising and staying up late wore me out and I'm only just beginning to recover.

The weather probably had its part to play too. Here in Dingle and all over Ireland, it didn't stop raining for days. And by rain, I'm not talking about a light shower. No, we're talking torrential downpours here. This meant that the only time I got out of the house was when I ran to the car to venture to the shops for more supplies or to the pub to meet up with friends!

Nor did I succeed in sticking to the OMS diet 100% of the time. It was next to impossible considering the amount of chocolate and mince pies in the house!
However, I didn't stray too much. I'd taken precautions by preparing batches of OMS-friendly treats such as these cookies and raw brownies so I was able to tuck into those whenever I felt tempted. And I'm very much back on the wagon now, using the power of good food to help me get over the exertions of Christmas*.

One of the dishes I've been cooking a lot lately is this one: spiced cauliflower and leeks with green beans and freekeh.

It's a dish that quick and easy to make. Its seasonal ingredients are affordable and widely available in the shops. It's packed with nutritional goodness. And for anyone who doesn't know what freekeh is, it's an ancient grain with a nutty flavour. Once confined to health stores, it's now stocked in many supermarkets. But don't worry if you can't find it. Feel free to substitute with any other wholegrain. I'd recommend bulgur wheat for its similar flavour and texture.

The following portions serve one.

50g freekeh (or alternative wholegrain)
150g cauliflower, approximately one quarter of a head of cauliflower
100g leeks, approximately one leek
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
5 tablespoons water
70g green beans
Some chopped coriander

  • Start by preparing your vegetables. Remove the tough stalk from the cauliflower and tear the remainder into small florets. Remove the hairy root from the leek, peel off its tough outer layer and then chop what remains into one-centimetre-long rounds. Top and tail the green beans and cut them in half.
  • Place your freekeh in a pan of salted water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 15 minutes.
  • Place the olive oil in a wok or frying pan (be sure to use one that has a lid). Add the spices and salt. Add the cauliflower florets and chopped leeks and toss so that the veggies are covered in the spicy oil. Add the water. 
  • Place a lid on the wok/frying pan and place it over a medium heat. Cook for 10 minutes, shaking the pan frequently to make sure none of the vegetables are sticking to the bottom of the pan.
  • Five minutes before your freekeh is due to be cooked, add the green beans to the pan with the grains and cover with a lid.
  • Once fifteen minutes are up, toss the contents of the two pans together. Add some chopped coriander and combine thoroughly. Taste and add a touch more salt if necessary.
  • A fried or poached egg makes a delicious addition to this dish.
  • May we all eat this well in the year to come!

* Now that the weather is better, I'm able to exercise more too. Long walks in the fresh air with my always enthusiastic dog Jimmy are just the thing to lift the spirits. And so too are dark evenings curled up on the sofa with the latest season of the Bridge. I'm looking forward to watching Making a Murderer next. Have any of you seen it?

You can also find me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas is...

(a) A time of family harmony and togetherness
(b) A source of stress and pressure
(c) An opportunity to make and devour delicious food
(d) A struggle to cover the cost of gifts and the price of the aforementioned feast and/or to find the time to get everything ready in time.

If you’re anything like me, Christmas is a combination of all of the above. I think the festive season is a wonderful yet fraught time of year. For me, it’s already involved a heart-lifting evening listening to the Dingle choir and orchestra as well as several frantic searches for Christmas gifts. And it hasn’t even really started yet…

For the moment, I’ve succeeded in in juggling the various challenges that Christmas brings and I hope you’re managing to do so too.
Wishing you all a Christmas that is full of kindness and blessed with love, laughter and good food.

Guím Nollaig mhór mhaith oraibh go léir

The weather is very mild here so I don't think we're in for a white Christmas but this is what it was like during the cold winter of 2009

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Dingle Food Festival is back. Are you coming?

The Dingle Food Festival is happening this weekend and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I'm going to be able to sit back and enjoy it.

I've had a stall at the farmers' market since 2007 and as a result, the weekend of the food festival was always one of the busiest of my entire year. It was even busier when I had the café as I took part in the Taste Trail too. (I remember going to sleep at 1am on the Friday of the food festival in 2012 and setting my alarm to get up again at 4.30am - painful memories!)

This year will be different. I'm taking a sabbatical, which means I can attend all the cookery demonstrations and workshops I want, savouring the atmosphere on the streets and sampling deliciousness as I go.

Top of my agenda are cookery demonstrations from:
- Rory O'Connell of Ballymaloe renown
- Mark Moriarty who recently won the title of San Pellegrino Young Chef of the year (which means he's the best young chef in the world!)
- French chef Michel LeBorgne
- And spice supremo Arun Kapil of Green Saffron fame.

I also hope to attend the fermentation workshop. I'm intrigued by the sound of the TRADEIT project, which will showcase 20 food producers from all over Europe.

And then there's the Taste Trail. Seventy six of Dingle's shops, pubs, art galleries, cafés, restaurants and breweries will host food producers from all over the peninsula who will sell samples of their most delicious food. I'm already eagerly anticipating the likes of Dingle Bay crabmeat and monkfish thermidor tartlets, Derry Clarke's Dingle Vodka-cured salmon with pickled baby vegetables and sea herbs, porchetta with homemade bread and caramelised onions and adventures in Valhrona chocolate...

I can't wait for this year's festival. Will any of you be there?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Memories of childhood Saturdays and a recipe for dairy-free ice cream

What were your Saturdays like when you were a child? Mine would always begin with my sisters and I huddled under duvets on the sofa, chomping on bowls of Rice Crispies with milk and giggling at Saturday morning cartoons.

They would end with mass. It never mattered how much we resisted that weekly trip to church, we’d be washed, scrubbed and dressed in our Sunday (or in this case, Saturday) best before being dragged reluctantly along to the service.
Our parents did try to sweeten the deal though. In an attempt to ensure that we didn’t fidget or fight during what often seemed like a never-ending service, our parents would promise us the ice cream of our choice from the shop across the road from the church once mass was over.

Peering into a freezer full of ice cream, trying to decide between a Feast, Cornetto, Freaky Foot or Tangle Twister became the Saturday night ritual of my childhood and I still associate ice cream with a treat.

It’s a treat that I’ve been unable to indulge in since I started to follow the OMS diet. And boy have I missed it!

Despite the fact that there has been a huge growth in free-from foods, I haven’t been able to find many ice creams I can eat.  A lot of dairy-free ices are made with coconut milk and because of its high saturated fat content, that’s not an ingredient for me.

Lately though, I have been hearing good things about ice creams made with frozen bananas. So last week I decided to experiment.

I must admit that my hopes weren’t high. Bananas may be sweet but I couldn’t see how they could also be creamy…

However, there’s magic in these ingredients. Combined, they create a flavour, a texture and a melt-in-the-mouth deliciousness that's just like ice cream. 

And you don’t just have to take my word for it. My partner Richard (who hasn’t had to abstain from regular ice cream like I have) likes this ice cream too. In fact, he said it might just be the best thing I’ve ever made.

So there you have it: it’s possible to combine five simple dairy-free ingredients to create a truly decadent treat – one that I think even my childhood self would have liked!

Sharon's mint-choc dairy-free ice cream
This makes two moderately-sized ice cream portions. If it's the sort of evening where you want to sit on the sofa, watch TV and gorge on ice cream, you're going to need a lot more!

3 frozen bananas
3 tablespoons cocoa powder 
2 tablespoons almond milk
1 tablespoon date syrup or sweetener of your choice 
4 mint leaves

  • Peel and chop the frozen bananas. I find this easier to do if I chop the bananas into two-centimetre/one inch thick slices first. Your fingers will get cold though so it might be a good idea to wear a pair of rubber gloves to avoid the chill factor!*
  • Add the chopped banana slices and the other ingredients to a food processor or liquidiser. 
  • Blitz until smooth and enjoy. 

I'm planning to experiment with more flavour combinations in the next few weeks. I'm thinking chocolate and raspberry and rum and raisin. Do you have any other suggestions? What's your favourite ice cream flavour? Or what was your favourite ice cream when you were a child?

* In response to this post, smarter people than me have said that they peel, slice and bag their bananas before they go in the freezer. I'll be doing this from now on to avoid frozen fingers!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Niceoise salad and memories of kindness

Here's another salad recipe but this time it doesn't come with a side order of complaints about the Irish weather. (Lest you think this means the weather has improved here on the Dingle Peninsula; it's done no such thing. We may have spent the past few weeks crossing our fingers for an Indian summer but those clouds have remained resolutely in our skies.)

No, this salad comes with a more personal story...

My partner Richard is quite a bit older than I am and when we first got together, there was some disapproval from our family and friends. With this as background information, you'll understand why I felt nervous the first time I met Richard's mother. By that stage, she was an old lady in her late seventies and I thought that if anyone were going to react in a judgemental way to our age difference, it was going to be her.

How wrong I was. I came to see that Anne was someone who prized love above all else in this world. She immediately saw and understood the strength of the love we shared. Her eyes shone with happiness for her son and from that moment on, she welcomed me warmly into her family.

She prepared a Niceoise salad for us to eat on the evening of that first visit. It was the first time I'd ever tasted this clever combination of green beans, tuna, anchovies, black olives and eggs but it definitely wasn't the last. It's become one of my go-to recipes for simple suppers ever since.

Anne died in 2007 but whenever I make this salad, I think of her and how kind she was to me on our first meeting.

My memory of Anne Smallwood's Niceoise Salad
This recipe feeds two greedy adults (with some leftovers for lunch the following day). Like all salad recipes, it's pretty adaptable. You can add more or less of any of the ingredients, according to your own preference.

400g small baby potatoes
250g green beans
1 medium-sized green pepper
15 black olives, the small puckered ones are best for flavour
250g tuna in olive oil, brine or water
8 anchovies
4 eggs

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
A pinch of salt

  • Wash the potatoes and place in a saucepan. Sprinkle with salt and cover with boiling water. Simmer over a medium heat until a knife passes through the potatoes with ease. This should take between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on the size of your potatoes. Strain out the water and set aside to cool.
  • Prepare your other ingredients while you're waiting for the potatoes. 
  • Top and tail the beans and then cut them in half.
  • Place them in a saucepan and sprinkle with salt. Add a centimetre or two of boiling water to the pan. Cover with a lid and simmer the beans over a medium to high heat for four minutes or until they are tender but still retain a slight bite.
  • Cut the top off the pepper and scoop out the seeds and pith inside. Cut the flesh into bite-sized pieces.
  • Remove the pits from the olives and cut them in half.
  • Place the eggs in a small saucepan. Cover them with boiling water and simmer over a medium heat for seven minutes. Then place the saucepan in your sink and run cold water over the eggs until they become cool enough to handle. Set aside until it's time for assembly.
  • Make the dressing by adding the olive oil, cider vinegar, honey, mustard and salt to a jam jar, screwing on the lid and shaking the jar vigorously until all the ingredients have combined.
  • Your potatoes ought to have cooked at this stage. You could cut them in three and add them to the salad as they are but I like to fry them in a little olive oil to give them crispy edges. Simply heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add your potato slices and a sprinkling of salt. Wait for a golden crispy skin to develop before turning each slice over and doing the same again.
  • It's time for assembly. Add the beans, potatoes, tuna, olives and green pepper to a salad bowl. Toss together until they are well combined.
  • Peel the eggs by tapping them gently against a chopping board or counter top until cracks appear in the shell. Carefully peel the shell off the egg and cut each egg into quarters. Arrange the eggs and anchovies on top of the salad.
  • It's up to you whether you dress the salad before it is served or not. I usually serve the dressing alongside and allow everyone to add as much or as little as they like.